I just recently came across a excellent piece by a English literature professor, Eric Bennett in the Chronicle of Higher Education. It resonated with an article I recently dug up for the book I’m writing on the first years of the new century/millennium, by John Leo about the responses to 9-11 on American campus. I think they are perfect bookends to the sad tale I try and tell in the book: They’re so Deadly cause We’re so Foolish. (Was formerly They’re so Smart…)
First the article from 2018, that tells the devastating tale about how, in politicizing everything in pursuit of the goal of a society free of coercion, the literary theorists destroyed the very ramparts against the abuse of power they sought, in their messianic fervor, to deconstruct.
Dismayed about American politics? Look in the mirror.By Eric BennettChronicle of Higher Education, April 13, 2018
Can the average humanities professor be blamed if she rises in the morning, checks the headlines, shivers, looks in the mirror, and beholds a countenance of righteous and powerless innocence? Whatever has happened politically to the United States, it’s happened in stark opposition to the values so many philosophers and English professors, historians and art historians, creative writers and interdisciplinary scholars of race, class, and gender hold dear.We are, after all, the ones to include diverse voices on the syllabus, use inclusive language in the classroom, teach stories of minority triumph, and, in our conference papers, articles, and monographs, lay bare the ideological mechanisms that move the cranks and offices of a neoliberal economy. Since the Reagan era our classrooms have mustered their might against thoughtless bigotry, taught critical thinking, framed the plight and extolled the humanity of the disadvantaged, and denounced all patriotism that curdles into chauvinism.We’ve published books like Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s The Signifying Monkey, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s A Critique of Postcolonial Reason, Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, and Kwame Anthony Appiah’s The Ethics of Identity— treatises that marshal humane nuance against prejudice, essentialism, propaganda, and demagogic charisma.We’ve cast out Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and Steve Bannon, but also Allan Bloom, Jordan Peterson, Richard J. Herrnstein, and Charles Murray. Our manner has been academic, but our matter has been political, and we have fought hard. So how have we ended up in these ominous political straits?The easy answer is frightening enough: We don’t really matter. The hard one chills the blood: We are, in fact, part of the problem.How has this sorry reality come to pass, across the humanities, and as if despite them? I can only tell a story of my own field and await the rain of stones. Three generations ago, literature professors exchanged a rigorously defined sphere of expertise, to which they could speak with authority, for a much wider field to which they could speak with virtually no power at all. No longer refusing to allow politics to corrupt a human activity that transcends it, they reduced the literary to the political. The change was sharp. From World War I until the 1960s, their forerunners had theorized literature as a distinct practice, a fine art, a realm of its own. Whether in the scholarship of the Russian Formalists, in T.S. Eliot’s archconservative essays, or in such midcentury monuments as Erich Auerbach’sMimesis(1946), René Wellek and Austin Warren’sTheory of Literature(1948), and Northrop Frye’sAnatomy of Criticism(1957), literature was considered autonomous.The editorial logic of right-wing media resembles closely the default position of many recent books and dissertations in literary studies.
Then, starting in the 1970s, autonomy became a custom honored only in the breach. Terry Eagleton and Fredric Jameson were first among countless equals who argued that pure art was pure politics. In 1985, Jane Tompkins laid out what many scholars increasingly believed about the whole field — that “works that have attained the status of classic, and are therefore believed to embody universal values, are in fact embodying only the interests of whatever parties or factions are responsible for maintaining them in their preeminent position.” Porous boundaries, fluid categories, and demoted reputations redefined classic texts.Beauty became ideology; poetry, a trick of power, no more essentially valuable than other such tricks — sitcoms, campaign slogans, magazine ads — and no less subject to critique. The focus of the discipline shifted toward the local, the little, the recent, and the demotic. “I find no contradiction in my writing about Henry James, bodybuilding, heavy metal, religion, and psychoanalytic theory,” Marcia Ian stated in PMLA in 1997. In Classics and Trash: Traditions and Taboos in High Literature and Popular Modern Genres (1990), Harriet Hawkins argued that much pop culture “has in practice … been a great deal more democratic and far less elitist, even as it has often been demonstrably less sexist than the academically closeted critical tradition.” Within the bosky purlieus of a declining humanism, everything had become fair game for study: Madonna andLost, Harry Potter and Mad Men.The demographic exclusivity of the midcentury canon sanctified the insurrection. Who didn’t feel righteous tossing Hawthorne on the bonfire? So many dead white men became so much majestic smoke. But now, decades later, the flames have dwindled to coals that warm the fingers of fewer and fewer majors. The midcentury ideal — of literature as an aesthetically and philosophically complex activity, and of criticism as its engaged and admiring decoding — is gone. In its place stands the idea that our capacity to shape our protean selves is the capacity most worth exercising, the thing to be defended at all costs, and the good that a literary inclination best serves.
Not heeding the sage advice of people “thinking slow,” the deconstructionist theorists plunged down the path of destabilizing the Western Canon to make room for the voices of the “Other.”
Democratizing the canon did not have to mean abdicating authority over it, but this was how it played out. In PMLA in 1997 Lily Phillips celebrated a new dispensation in which “the interpreter is not automatically placed above either producers of texts or participants in events but is acknowledged as another subject involved in a cultural practice, with just as much or as little agency.” This new dispensation — cultural studies — “emerged forcefully because the awareness of positionality, context, and difference is endemic to this historical period.”Having eaten the tail of the canonical beast they rode on, scholars devoured their own coccyges [tailbones]. To profess the humanities was to clarify one’s situatedness, one’s limited but crucial perspective, one’s opinion and its contingent grounds. Yet if “opinion is always contingent,” Louis Menand asked laconically, “why should we subsidize professionals to produce it?”By the 1990s, many scholars equated expertise with power and power with oppression and malicious advantage. The humane gesture was not to fight on behalf of the humanities — not to seek standing — but rather to demonstrate that literary studies no longer posed a threat. Unmaking itself as a discipline, it could subtract at least one instance of ideological violence from the nation and world.
Learning to love terroristsJohn Leo, Jewish World Review Oct. 1, 2001 / 14 Tishrei, 5762
SPEND a few hours on a computer search and you get some idea of how the American campus is reacting to the current crisis. It isn’t pretty. The first thing you notice is that vigils and rallies tend to focus on feelings. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose. We all have to get our bearings. But the concern with emotions and personal dislocation seems over the top, as if we need to look inward for therapy more than outward to come together for the fight ahead. An anthropologist at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill said she was pleased that her students’ “thoughtful, passionate varieties of anger are openings to reflection, learning.”Worse, the words the rest of the nation is using – “attack,” “terrorism,” “resolve,” and “defense” – don’t seem to come up much on campus. Umpteen college presidents put out timid statements about coping with “the tragedy,” and “the events of September 11” as if we have just suffered an earthquake or some other passing natural disaster.
The American Association of University Professors released a statement that probably would have made Neville Chamberlain throw up. It promised to “continue to fight violence with renewed dedication to the exercise of freedom of thought and the expression of that freedom in our teaching.” What does that mean? That the people on campus in 1941 should have responded to Pearl Harbor by giving longer lectures? Bradford Wilson of the National Association of Scholars, a group that has been struggling to restore intellectual integrity to the campus, called the AAUP statement “fatuous nonsense,” “Marxist claptrap,” and “anti-American in its basic thrust.”Unreal. The campus flight from reality takes many exotic forms. One is the notion that the terrorists’ target wasn’t really America. “Students in my classes really see this as an assault on international trade, globalization,” said the dean of Columbia University’s international affairs school. Another is the attempt to adapt the crisis to the campus fixation on bias crimes.The most animated rally at the University of California-Berkeley was a protest against a campus newspaper for an editorial cartoon showing two Muslim suicide bombers in hell. Many students feel that singling out members of any religious or ethnic group as responsible for the attack is a sort of hate crime. The attack “was done by . . . people who hate,” said one University of Wisconsin student, “and I don’t think hate has a color or ethnicity.“But the dominant campus notions were ones the terrorists themselves would surely endorse: that America had it coming, and fighting back would be vengeful, unworthy, and a risk to the lives of innocents. A speaker at a University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill teach-in called for an apology to “the tortured and the impoverished and all the millions of other victims of American imperialism.” Georgetown University is holding a debate titled “Resolved: America’s Policies and Past Actions Invited the Recent Attacks.” At a Yale panel, six hand-wringing professors focused on “underlying causes” of the attack and America’s many faults, including our “offensive cultural messages.” In response, classics professor Donald Kagan said the panelists seemed intent on “blaming the victim” and asked why Yale couldn’t find one panelist somewhere to focus on the enemy and “how to stamp out such evil.”Some students show a glimmer of awareness that the campus is a bubble of unreality. A Columbia student said: “A lot of people here think it would be a travesty to begin killing people. . . . go off campus you hear something else.” On other campuses students resist the antiwar tilt in large numbers. At the mostly blue-collar California State University-Fresno, says Victor Hanson, who teaches there, “Maybe 90 percent of the faculty sympathizes with boutique anti-Americanism, and 90 percent of students are firmly behind the government, with the strongest support coming from the Mexican-American kids. The students understand what the faculty doesn’t – that fostering humanity means stopping people who kill.”America still doesn’t understand what has happened to its colleges. A campus culture has arisen around very dangerous ideas. Among them are radical cultural relativism, nonjudgmentalism, and a postmodern conviction that there are no moral norms or truths worth defending-all knowledge and morality are constructions built by the powerful. Add to this the knee-jerk antagonism to the “hegemony” of the West and a reflexive feeling of sympathy for anti-Western resentments, even those expressed in violence. This is a toxic mix, and it is now crucial for those both on and off the campus to start saying so.JWR contributor John Leo’s latest book is Incorrect Thoughts: Notes on Our Wayward Culture. Send your comments by clicking here.